Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

October 1901. Proceedings of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union 2: 44-46.

Observations on Traill's Flycatcher

M.A. Carriker, Jr., Nebraska City

This shy little denizen of the Missouri River willow swamps was entirely unknown to me until 1897, when on July 19 I made its acquaintance. I had gone fishing to what is known as the "Slough," across the river from Nebraska City. This is a body of water in the form of a half horseshoe, lying along the east side of what was formerly the bed of the Missouri River. It is about three miles long and from twenty-five to one hundred yards in width, the lower end being connected with the river during high water. On the east side the land is high and dry, while the strip on the west side between it and the river is low and marshy and covered with a thick growth of swamp willows from three to fifteen feet in height according to the amount of moisture in the soil. Small sloughs and ponds are scattered about, and altogether it forms a most excellent feeding and breeding ground for many of our marsh birds.

The fish having ceased to find anything of interest in my most carefully prepared bait, I gave up in despair and started out on a rummage among the thick willows bordering the stream. It was not long before I was attracted by a bird song, seemingly a mixture of that of the Phoebe and Wood Pewee, yet differing from both. It being new to me I made every possible effort to get a glimpse of the bird. I was just starting on again when I saw a nest which had escaped my notice in the search for the bird, and which I took for that of the Yellow Warbler. However, upon examination it proved to be somewhat of a surprise, since it was entirely new to me. It was in an upright crotch of a small willow, about five feet from the ground, and the spot where the tree grew was entirely surrounded by water about a foot deep, leaving a small island perhaps five feet in diameter.

This nest was made of gray and brown bark fibers quite compactly woven together, and lined smoothly with fine bleached grass stems, and contained four of the most beautiful eggs I think I have ever seen. They were about the size of the Wood Pewee's egg, only more slender. The rich creamy background was profusely blotched and dotted with bright chestnut, one egg having the entire side covered by a blotch. Much to my regret I was unable to blow them, the incubation being too far advanced, but they were identified as being those of Traill's Flycatcher. This must have been a second set for I found slightly incubated eggs the next year on June il.

This second nest was found not far from the one of the previous year. I was slowly picking my way through the thick willows in water nearly knee deep when I caught a momentary glimpse of a little gray bird as it flashed up about fifteen feet ahead and disappeared among the willows. A second later I saw the nest from which it had been flushed and at once recognized it as that of Traill's Flycatcher. It was just seven feet above the surface of the water. The nest was almost identical with the one found the previous year, the same materials and construction being present, and I have since found it to be prevalent with the species in that locality. This nest contained three nearly fresh eggs, which had the same creamy background and chestnut markings, except that the markings were confined to dots and specks over the surface instead of the blotches. The female soon returned and I secured her, thus making the identification positive. Although I searched diligently I found no more nests that summer, but during the summer of 1899 I was rewarded by securing two sets, one of four eggs and the other of three, which may have been an incomplete set since the eggs were fresh and the female absent from the nest. These nests were found June 17, and in the same general locality as the previous ones.

The first was located at the edge of a small pond, where the willows were about two inches in diameter and from fifteen to twenty feet in height, and growing so closely as to make a passage between them difficult. The nest was five feet from the ground and supported on the side of a main trunk by two small twigs. It was typical in material and construction. The second was in an entirely different situation, yet it cannot be said to form an exception to the general type of locality chosen. In this instance there was a small area of ground perhaps two feet above the surface of the slough, which it bordered, and overgrown with shrubby willows, while the ground beneath was covered by a thick growth of swamp grass and sedges. In an upright crotch of a willow slightly larger than the rest and about four feet from the ground was placed the nest. Again we have the typical construction and material; in fact I know of no other small bird in which there is so little variation in size, material and construction of the nest. The three fresh eggs were marked slightly heavier than those found a few hours before, and were smaller in size.

After looking in vain for two years for a heavily marked set similar to those found in 1897, I have come to the conclusion that this is not the typical marking of the egg and that those that were so beautiful by reason of the heavy markings were abnormal eggs, the parallel of which I fear I may never again have the good fortune to find.

After describing the nesting site of this little flycatcher it is hardly necessary to add that it is extremely shy and retiring in its habits, and very easily escapes the notice of even the experienced collector.

I am informed by J. S. Hunter, of Lincoln, that in that vicinity it frequents hedges along country roads, while Dr. Wolcott reports that in Michigan its relative, the Alder Flycatcher, is partial to alder thickets of meadow lands and along the creeks. This seems to indicate that the species is exceedingly versatile in its breeding habits, easily becoming accustomed to the various conditions in which it may find itself.